You might not know the name Ed Oliver yet, but learn it, Texas football fans. The Houston Cougars defensive tackle is the best player in college football, according to pretty much everybody. ESPN and Sports Illustrated released their respective preseason player rankings within the a week of each other, and the UH junior topped them both. He’ll be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated‘s issue college football preview, with the sports magazine of record dubbing him “Big Boss.” He’s also on the latest cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, which calls Oliver a “beast” and anoints him “the most dominant player in America.”
Oliver’s resume backs up the hype. Last year, he was a consensus All-American and snagged the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best interior lineman. He racked up a ridiculous 39.5 tackles for loss in 25 games over his two-year career, believed to be more tackles for loss than any player has ever amassed in their first two seasons, according to ESPN. Despite suffering from a lingering knee injury last year, Oliver still managed to finish with 73 tackles, 16.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, and a blocked kick. He even scored a one-yard rushing touchdown in the Hawaii Bowl, despite playing with a bum foot after he stepped on a sea urchin a few days before the game.
“I think he’s the most disruptive defensive lineman I’ve seen in college football,” former Rice coach David Bailiff, who had the misfortune of coaching against Oliver last season, told ESPN in February. “He’s as close to the Tasmanian Devil on the football field that I’ve ever seen.”
Oliver is accustomed to status as an elite player—he was a blue-chip recruit out of Westfield High in Houston, choosing UH over bigger-name powerhouses including Alabama, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame. He had a stellar freshman year and reached star status heading into last season.
It’s rare to see a player outside the Power Five conferences—the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 12—rise to a unanimous top-player ranking. The top spot in the previous four ESPN preseason college football player rankings has gone to players from Florida State, Ohio State, and Clemson, and no player from a school outside of the Power Five conferences (Houston is in the American Athletic Conference, alongside historically average programs like Memphis, Tulsa, Central Florida and Navy) has landed in the top ten—except for Oliver, who was ESPN’s ninth-best player heading into last season (Sports Illustrated only recently transitioned from creating preseason All-American teams to a top-100 style ranking, and its website archive is difficult to navigate, but as far as we can tell SI‘s top tens and All-American teams have been populated almost exclusively by Power Five players as well).
But both Sports Illustrated and ESPN were clearly smitten with Oliver this summer. “After two years of watching the 6’3″, 290-pound former five-star recruit slice through offensive lines that spent all week worrying about containing him, swim through the backfield with the agility of a cornerback and rip down ballcarriers with one hand, it’s clear now that there’s no one else like Oliver in the country,” SI wrote in its top 100 rankings. ESPN, meanwhile, called Oliver “unblockable.”
Oliver is also the first player in recent memory from a Texas school to head into a college football season as the consensus top player. Former Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett came close in 2016, landing at number two on SI’s preseason list and ranking fifth on ESPN’s list. But Garrett joined a crowded crop at the top, and it was hard to argue he was any better than the likes of Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, or LSU running back Leonard Fournette.
All three of those players were considered favorites to win the Heisman Trophy that year. This year, the consensus number-two player ranked behind Oliver, Stanford running back Bryce Love, is an early favorite to win this year’s award. Oliver, however, is facing longer odds. According to ESPN, only one defensive position player has won the Heisman in its 83-year history—Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997—and only eighteen defensive players have finished in the top five in Heisman voting. Ten of them were defensive linemen, but since 1990 only two defensive linemen have finished in the top five.
Still, UH is campaigning hard for Oliver to be a true Heisman candidate. According to the Houston Chronicle, the athletics department’s communications wing is planning an aggressive marketing campaign, which will include social media and email blasts updating Heisman voters of Oliver’s season progress. And, in what seems like a pretty transparent effort to give Oliver a Heisman boost, Cougars coach Major Applewhite has said that he plans to use Oliver in short-yardage rushing situations on offense, and that he could have Oliver pass, catch, and even kick the football throughout the season. If he can rack up some goal line rushing touchdowns, maybe he can present himself to Heisman voters as more of a two-way threat than just an ace defender.
UH could use the hype that would come with Oliver becoming a legitimate Heisman trophy candidate. The Cougars have been a rising program for several years now, but the wave of recent success they have ridden may be close to cresting. Houston lost program architect Tom Herman to the University of Texas after the 2016 season, saw its hope to receive a Big 12 invite fizzle, and finished a disappointing 7-5 under first-year coach Applewhite last season. The Cougs now enter 2018 on the fringe of the preseason top 25 conversation, though even if they win a ton of games, a soft schedule might have already spiked Houston’s playoff chances. An average team record would almost certainly steal some of the shine from Oliver’s likely incredible season stat line, which would badly hurt his Heisman cause.
Regardless, Oliver should maintain his top player status all season, as long as he can stay on the field (avoid all sea urchins, please!). Whether the Cougars play up to his talent level remains to be seen. They won’t get another shot with Oliver, who has already announced he’s heading to the NFL next year. He’s expected to be top-five pick, with the potential to be selected number one overall. If he is drafted with the top pick, it’d be another feat that has rarely been achieved by someone like Oliver: a defensive tackle hasn’t been selected first overall in the draft since 1994.